I received an email yesterday that asked about how a trailing dog follows the correct person. Of course, this would be an interesting thing to write about. We call this ability to detect one person from another scent discrimination. This also starts getting into the scent theories and whether or not you believe dogs can “track” or “trail.” But that is a topic for another day.
So what is scent discrimination? I believe all dogs have the ability to do this. How well depends on the individual dog’s prey drive and its natural ability to smell out things. Plus there is always that little thing about practice. Scent discrimination is, to put it simply, to pick between scents, or to pick one scent out from other scents. We all know of drug dogs and that they can recognize the scent of a narcotic through the other smells of fuel, sweat, food, or whatever a person could hide it in. Or in the wild, the wolf is able to smell the difference between the hare it is following for dinner and fox or elk. Well, it works the same only our SAR dogs are following an individual person.
How does this work? First off, a dog’s nose is phenomenal. Without being overly technical we often explain this during our demonstrations by saying, “think of a your favorite brownie recipe.” Okay readers, are you thinking of that wonderful smell of warm brownies just out of the oven? Smells good. Smells like a brownie. Well, from what we know about the canine nose they are able to smell the list of ingredients. Eggs, cocoa, butter, etc. This is how they are able to look for one individual that has crossed a street and walked several blocks away on a busy street.
To teach scent discrimination we start by dropping a scent article of some type in front of the dog. The person then runs off, hiding just out of view. This is the same as training the tracking/trailing dogs. I refer you back to a previous post. Once the dog is proficient in the beginning of running the trails, we add extra people. At first maybe having random people standing next to a trail only run in a straight line. The dog is showed the scent article and told to find. If the dog stops at anyone that is not the person who left the scent article they are not rewarded. The extra people will stand and not even look at the dog. The dog in training quickly figures out that once he finds the correct person he gets the reward and fun happens.
Another way we teach scent discrimination is by having two people start at a point and walk next to each other in a straight line to start a trail. At the beginning one person will drop something on the ground. At some point the two individuals split off from each other walk in opposite directions. The dog handler brings the dog to the scent article and starts the trail. The dog then has to decide at the split which person to follow. The reward is only given at the correct person. There are many other games we play to help train the scent discriminating dogs, I just explained two examples. The more I train and work the my K-9 partner and with other K-9 teams it always leaves me amazed with the abilities of our dogs noses and minds to solve problems.